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Wandering Mind Makes Me Unhappy

I know I have sometimes used my various alumni periodicals that come to my house for material to ponder.  I find the material quite interesting.  And usually, it is current thinking on old issues and novel thinking about breaking discoveries.  On my own, I would never come into contact with this kind of stuff.

Another periodical came in the mail yesterday.  As I was thumbing through it, my eyes landed on a headline under the section called “Research Notes.”  This would be the kind of section that many people would ignore.  Who cares about research, could be the lament.  But I find those little nuggets fascinating.  Under that headline I read this title: “The Mind is a Frequent, But Not Happy, Wanderer”

Following this catchy title came a simple description of the research followed by two psychology professors at Harvard, Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert.  The opening line reads, “People spend 46.9 percent of their waking hours thinking about something other than what they’re doing, and this mind-wandering typically makes them unhappy.”

These two guys developed a smartphone application that tracks folks’ thoughts, feelings, and actions.  I was not tempted immediately to download that app to my smartphone and begin tracking my own thoughts, feelings, and actions.  But I did begin to ponder whether I think this is true.  And if it is true, how can my own spiritual practices somehow be useful to make me less unhappy---or happier.

It is easy to believe that people spend nearly half their time thinking about something other than what they are doing.  If I am bored, distracted, or “on cruise control,” I am not at all attentive to what I am doing.  Daydreaming is a preferred way of avoiding the present.

Although I have not read the full article, my hunch is the authors suggest that it is tough to be happy if you are not in the present.  A simpler way to put it is to say one cannot be happy in the future tense.  Of course, I can say “I will be happy when I retire.”  But I am also saying with that, “I am not happy now.”  So I spend present time daydreaming about when I will retire…but am not happy now.

This is precisely where the spiritual practices enter the picture for me.  Spiritual practices are not about the future; they are about the present---or they are about nothing.  Simply speaking, one cannot be spiritual tomorrow!  One can only do it today and, then, do it again tomorrow.

So spiritual practices---done today---help me be present in my day.  A key facet of any spiritual practice is it centers me.  A practice draws me toward my center.  My “center” is not a particular place in my body.  In fact, a psychologist might even suggest, “it is all mental.”  I am ok with that.  To be mental does not mean it is unreal.

My spirituality contends that as I center myself, I will be drawn to that “place” where I encounter the Inner Light.  It is the place of the divine-human encounter.  For me it is always the source and resource of meaning and purpose in my life.  And I suggest, it is both an experience and, ultimately, a way of life. 

If I can learn to live a centered life, then I will be living for the most part in the present.  I will give myself the best chance to be happy.  I will not postpone happiness until I retire, until I go to heaven, until---whatever it is that I want that I think will make me happy.

Today I want to exercise some spiritual practice.  I want to do better than 50% of my time thinking about what I am doing.  I am going to borrow Brother Lawrence’s famous phrase, “practicing the presence of God.”  That’s what I am going to do.  And maybe I will be happy!

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